Cathy’s mom has Alzheimer’s. Micky’s husband had a stroke. Susan’s daughter had a sports injury. And these women all have one thing in common – burnout.

These three women, along with about 44 million other Americans, became caregivers for adult family members. While medical attention and daily logistics were focused on the patient, the loyal caregiver was losing steam.

Most caregivers do so willingly. In fact, most are so dedicated to the physical and emotional health of their loved one that they don’t realize they are neglecting their own needs. It’s the culmination of a lot of things – like giving up time for exercise, not getting a good night’s sleep, and opting for quick convenience foods instead of healthy home-cooked meals. Sometimes it’s simply exhaustion or an ongoing state of stress that nibbles away at a person’s well-being, paving the way for more serious medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

The Family Caregiver Alliance compiled data that shows people who care for a chronically ill loved one:

  • Have increased alcohol and other substance use
  • Suffer from increased rates of acid reflux and headaches with higher levels of obesity and pain
  • Develop diminished immune response, which leads to frequent infection and increased risk of cancers
  • Reported that they had not gone to the doctor as often as they should (72 percent)
  • Have eating (63 percent) and exercising (58 percent) habits that are worse than before they took on the caregiver role

“I’ve been caregiver for the past month to my husband who had emergency surgeries and my daughter who broke her ankle and had surgery,” said Susan, a full-time professional. “I know my situation is temporary, but it has given me a whole new empathy for anyone who cares for a family member with a chronic condition.”

An older friend of Susan’s is the primary caregiver for her husband. “She says everyone asks about him, but no one seems to ask about her. She felt that her needs were so ignored and diminished that she had to seek professional counseling.”

Micky knows how draining a caregiver’s life can be. Her husband had a stroke; then her sister was diagnosed with cancer. She was caring for them both until her sister passed away. It left her socially isolated, plus it affected her ability to keep up with her job.

Financial factors

Of the more than 44 million Americans who provide unpaid care for people age 50 and older, 75 percent are employed, according to ReACT (Respect a Caregiver’s Time). This national coalition addresses the challenges of employee caregivers. ReACT says that working caregivers are more likely to:

  • Arrive late and leave early
  • Have lower productivity and job performance
  • Take early retirement
  • Turn down a promotion
  • Self-care for every caregiver

If you’re going to take care of someone else, you need to take care of yourself first. Here are some ideas that have worked for others:

  • Utilize respite care to give yourself a break. This might be a home health aide for a few hours a week, or an adult day care center where your loved one has a chance to experience something beyond the daily routine of his or her illness. HealthTouch a VNA of Care New England, offers a wide variety of in-home services to help care for those in need while providing caregivers with a needed break from daily caregiving responsibilities.
  • Schedule quiet time or visits with supportive friends.
  • Eat healthy, balanced meals.
  • Get an adequate amount of sleep. It’s okay to asking a family member or friend to stop by so you can take a nap.
  • Talk to people in similar situations. People in support groups get ideas and feel a sense of camaraderie. If you can’t attend in person, find an online support group.
  • Understand your limitations. At some point, you will need help – physically or emotionally. Explore community resources. Plan ahead. You may want to do this early, while your loved one is well enough to contribute to the conversation.

Remember, you need to take of yourself, if for no other reason, to be healthy and able to take care of the person you love.